Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Pope is Chosen – Hopes Rise for Change

by John Shelby Spong

His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but the world will know him as Pope Francis I. He was a surprise selection by the Conclave of Cardinals voting in the Sistine Chapel and he received the required majority of 77 votes on the third ballot cast, a unifying fact. He is from the “Third World,” that is, he is from the southern hemisphere, where growth in adherence to the Roman Catholic faith is still being experienced, but he was not one of those third world cardinals around which rumors of a papal possibility had circulated. He is largely an outsider to Vatican affairs and to Vatican politics. That suggests, I believe and hope, that the College of Cardinals is no longer willing to place the governance of their church into the hands of those who appear to be either tolerant of or complicit in the scandals that have marked the Vatican in recent years, both in the area of finances and in the practice of morality. He is known as a champion of the poor, but he is cool to what has been called “Liberation Theology.” Nonetheless, Leonardo Boff, the Catholic theologian most identified with liberation theology, has expressed both hope and some degree of pleasure at his election. He comes to the papacy at a time when the credibility of religious institutions, in general and of the Roman Catholic Church in particular, is at an all time low. Will he be up to the challenges he faces? Only time will tell.

People say of this ancient institution that the Roman Church moves by centuries not by decades, years or months. Historically that has been true. In an age of instant communications, jet travel and an interdependent world, however, that pace may be a luxury no longer available to this Church. Certainly the world has lost patience with its reticence to confront, purge and overcome the systemic abuse of children and young people the world over. I use the word “systemic” quite deliberately. Priestly abuse is not the isolated behavior of a few bad priests. It is far too deep and widespread to be dismissed on that basis. It reveals something systemically wrong, something systemically sick about the very culture that permeates this Church.

This sickness expresses itself not only in the abuse, but also in the widespread ecclesiastical cover up of that abuse. The cover up is as revealing as the abuse itself and it reaches now into the highest levels of that Church’s life. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, at the invitation and with the approval of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, was allowed to find sanctuary in the Vatican from criminal prosecution in Massachusetts. He was given a timely and propitious “promotion” to a top Vatican position, where he lives today in honor and dignity, when he should be an inmate in jail and facing the public humiliation his deeds have earned for him. As long as Bernard Law remains in this position, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, at its very highest level, cannot pretend that it is not still engaging in a massive cover up.

Prior to Benedict’s retirement, both the episodes of sex abuse and its facilitating cover up had broken into the ranks of the cardinals and these charges were actually nipping at the heels of the former Archbishop of Munich, who is now known to the world as Benedict XVI. The Cardinal of Los Angeles, Roger Mahoney, has been revealed as an active participant in deception, lies and cover up. The Archbishop of Scotland, Keith O’Brien, has resigned amid admitted acts of sexual impropriety with other priests or former priests. The Australian bishop, Geoffrey Robinson, who headed up that country’s investigation of the crimes of child abuse by Catholic clergy, was so thorough in his report that it shook the security of the Catholic hierarchy.

Instead of acting on his far ranging recommendations, the hierarchy marginalized this bishop and proceeded to appoint as the Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, a man so close to those scandals that Bishop Robinson resigned, saying that he could not in honesty pledge his obedience to the Vatican’s appointment. Pope Francis I will not be given the luxury of centuries of time to confront this cancer infecting every part of this Church’s life. He has only days or weeks to signal that he will move to clear up the tragedy that is killing the life of his Church. That cancer surely requires that he also look at the other vital subjects in the life of the Church: issues like the requirement of priestly celibacy, the way women are defined and treated and this Church’s stated public attitude toward gay and lesbian people, which places into a context of rank hypocrisy the widespread presence of gay men, not only in the priesthood, but in this Church’s hierarchy itself.

Does the requirement of celibacy, a twelfth century addition to Christian practice, serve to invite sexually unhealthy and repressed people into the ranks of the ordained? Does that fact not mean that while the abuse issue is tragic, it should not be surprising? Do we not reap what we have sown? Does the ban on birth control and the refusal to consider women as fit candidates for ordination rise out of a misogynist fear of women that has resulted in the putdown of women through the ages? Can this Church with credibility still make a virtue out of this patriarchal sin? Does the continued attitude in this Church, expressed in the publicly stated definition of homosexual people as “deviant,” have any credibility in the world of science and medicine? Does that definition not rise out of the great anxiety that the world will someday discover that through the ages, the celibate priesthood of this Church has provided the largest closet in the developed world in which gay men could hide from both marriage and persecution?

Homosexuality, we now know, is no more a choice than is skin color, gender, blue eyes or left-handedness; yet the prejudice against homosexuality, now largely gone in the secular world, continues to linger in this Church, encouraged by the condemnation that continues to emanate from the hierarchy. Dare we hope that this new knowledge might somehow permeate the structures of the Catholic Church and find expression in this new Pope? It took 400 years for the Vatican to admit that Galileo was right! In this day of instant communications waiting for centuries to address a public problem is no longer an option. The perpetuation of sexual ignorance, revealed in dated sexual prejudices, can no longer be tolerated by the thinking world.

Hopes burn brightly at the beginning of every new administration, whether it be religious or political, and Cardinal Bergoglio appears to bring many things to his new position. Because prior to his election he was an outsider, he comes to this position with little baggage and thus he has the freedom to act. Because he is from outside of Europe, he brings a new inclusiveness to Catholic Christianity. Because he is a “Latino,” he represents the largest concentration of Catholic worshipers in the world today. Forty percent of all Catholics today are “Latinos.” One third of the Catholics in the United States are “Latinos.” Because he is a Jesuit, he brings to his office the Jesuit commitment to intellectual rigor and honesty. Because he has demonstrated a commitment to the poor, he brings a radical critique to the kind of capitalism that does not see or understand that a capitalism that is unfettered by human concerns and needs, will always and inevitably produce an economic system where wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few and poverty is increasingly the destiny of the masses. Political instability and revolutions are the price the world will pay for such insensitivity.

In America today, for example, right wing politicians oppose with vehemence a fair taxation policy, preferring rather a policy that protects the wealthy with tax loopholes that the wealthy had the power to adopt and now refuse to surrender. They seek to balance the American deficit by cutting education, welfare and Medicare resources for the poor to frightening levels, failing to remember that the primary causes of the present deficit are two unfunded wars, which these same people chose to fight and for which they refused to pay. The deficit was then expanded by an enormous economic collapse driven by the greed of the wealthy. Because the advocates of these fiscal policies also tend to be the supporters of such social issues as opposition to equality for women, minimizing both birth control and abortion and supporting the continued oppression and injustice toward gay and lesbian people, their moral culpability is also in question.

This Pope will have a choice to make. Will his commitment to the poor transcend his commitment to these outdated cultural prejudices? In a complex world, ethical decisions are not always clear and neat, and uninformed ethical decisions can never be sustained. Cardinal Bergoglio chose the name Francis. Is that a hint of things to come? Francis was an iconic saint whose life embraced two distinct foci. He was, first, uncompromisingly dedicated to the poor and the oppressed. Second, he was a lover of nature. He talked of the sun, the moon, the animals and nature itself as his brothers, his sisters. Does this presage the commitment on the part of this Pope to address the issue of climate change and the incessant rape of the earth in search of more corporate profits? Will he lend his voice and his influence to the saving of this planet Earth, “our island home?”

Pope Francis is not known as a theologian as was his predecessor, but as a Jesuit will he give his still considerable intellect to the modern task of rethinking the basic theological symbols through which the Christian faith presents itself to the modern world? The concepts of “Original Sin” and the fall from perfection, for example, make little sense in a world that knows that we have evolved from single cells to self-conscious humanity over billions of years? How can modern Christianity escape the religion of control, which focuses ultimately on reward, punishment and the final judgment, when we recognize human interdependence and the survival instincts that are part of our being and our biology, not part of our doing and our moral choices?

The tasks confronting the Christian faith in our time are massive. We welcome this new leader on the world’s stage as a partner in addressing these issues. We remind him, however, that he will not be measured by the beauty of his words. As the Bible says, it is by the fruit it produces that the tree is judged.

I thought readers might like to view a few more of the “pope” cartoons that are appearing worldwide.

(click to enlarge cartoons)


Post a Comment